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Monday, October 10, 2016

A blog of two halves about grammar schools

The half with the evidence
Over the last month many of my friends and acquaintances have asked me, "Just what is the deal with grammar schools?" The fascinating thing is that it really isn't complicated. There is loads of evidence. And it basically comes down to three key points.

The first, most people already know, is that disadvantaged children in areas with grammar schools do worse than their counterparts in areas that don't select at eleven.

The second, some people know, is that when comparing other education systems around the world the ones that do best don't select.

And finally the bit that not so many people know is that those lucky enough to pass the eleven plus and go to grammar school do no better than their counterparts in areas without selection. The educational advantage is secured before they even start.

To summarise the best education systems in the world don't do selection by ability. Where selection happens the disadvantaged do worse and the lucky do no better.

So why the hell does the idea persist?

The half with the opinion
My first hypothesis is a cognitive bias called the endowment effect which basically states that humans tend to value things they have bought or selected. We like to think that we are clever and make wise choices.

People who went to grammar school tend to be positive about the experience. It made them feel special and valued. It gave them a leg up...

Well it didn't actually give them a leg up as we have seen above. Others less fortunate were hobbled and held back but the end result was the same. Those that went to grammars tended to get better jobs.

So they viewed grammars as good things. They feel preferable to private schools where any idiot can buy a better future if their parents have money. Those who went to grammar school did so as a result of their own merit and hard work. It plays nicely to those with an ethic to get on and better themselves.

But effectively the selection at 11 massively favours those with money and the ability to tutor their children through the exam so it is the perfect tool of an oligarchy.

You concentrate power in the hands of a select few but give the impression that you believe in a meritocracy. So your hold on power is never challenged. It is the educational equivalent of the 'Hunger Games' or a lottery. Although a lottery would actually be a fairer model of allocating places.

But why this government's interest?

My second hypothesis is that they want to distinguish themselves from the absurdly overpriveleged rule of Cameron and the Etonians.

Thirdly and perhaps more sinisterly is that it is a policy that sounds good but which can't be measured for a really long time. It would take a minimum of ten years and possibly more to actually be able to measure whether grammar schools had improved outcomes for all. All of which time you can report to the electorate that you are making progress towards an entirely invented number of new grammars (say 500) without actually being held to account for it being a stupid idea in the first place.

It's almost perfect politics. Something you can say with conviction and passion is the thing you are doing to improve education for everyone but which no one can challenge with inconvenient facts or reality.

Other than all that data that we already have.

And you thought that Donald Trump was post-factual.

Note: let me be absolutely clear that I don't have anything against grammar schools. I have a problem with the idea that only 1 in 5 children or thereabouts get the chance to go to one and that this selection is made at the age of eleven. If the challenge was to make all schools make children feel as special and successful as those that went to grammar schools then I would be all over it.

More evidence:
Full fact's summary
Huffington post's summary which leaves the door open if the admission criteria are changed
The RSA's letter to the debate